A Gilbert and Sullivan-based Tribute
Let's Hear It for a National Identity Card!
Do you think that when they asked George Washington for ID that he just whipped out a quarter?
- Steven Wright
An animated Gilbert and Sullivan-based tribute to Charles Clarke , id cards and puppy pianists, it features a hint of politics and opinion, a dapper dog and British politicians in spandex...
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China Readies Super ID Card, a Worry to Some
by David W Chen
Beijing - For almost two decades, Chinese citizens have been defined, judged and, in some cases, constrained by their all-purpose national identification card, a laminated document the size of a driver's license. But starting next year, they will face something new and breathtaking in scale: an electronic card that will store that vital information for all 960 million eligible citizens on chips that the authorities anywhere can access. Officials hope that the technologically advanced cards will help stamp out fraud and counterfeiting involving the current cards, protecting millions of people from those problems and saving billions of dollars. Providing the cards to everyone is expected to take five or six years, but the vagueness and vastness of the undertaking has prompted some criticism that the data collection could be used to quash dissent and to infringe on privacy.
The project comes at a time when China is doggedly remaking itself into a leaner economic machine in line with the standards of the World Trade Organisation. But China is also struggling to track a restless and poor rural population that continues to gravitate toward the cities, so officials are no doubt gambling that the cards can help them juggle two important if conflicting interests: pro-economic liberalisation, while monitoring citizens in an increasingly fluid society. There has been little public discussion or news about the new cards. Brief but rapturous accounts in the official press say the cards will "protect citizens."
Yet many of China's toughest critics, at home and abroad, are sceptical, objecting to the concentration of so much information at the government's fingertips. "Given the record of the Chinese government on protecting the privacy of its citizens and given the prevalence of corruption, how can we ensure that this information will be managed properly?" asked Nicolas Becquelin, research director at the Hong Kong office of Human Rights in China. "It's scary what the Chinese government is doing, because there is no counterweight."
The original identification card, introduced in 1985, contains such personal data as one's nationality and birth date and an 18-digit identification number. It also indicates a person's household registration, which has traditionally tied a person to his or her province of birth. In June, China's top legislative body, the Standing Committee of the National People's Congress, passed the National Citizen ID Law, approving the cards. They are to have a microchip storing personal data, but the face of the card is not to contain details any more personal than what is on the current cards. The cards are to be tested early next year, first in Shanghai, Shenzhen and Huzhou, a city in Zhejiang Province. The agency in charge of the program, the Ministry of Public Security, declined to answer written questions seeking details. But in an interview published in July with Cards Tech and Security, a magazine of the Smart Card Forum of China, a trade group, two Public Security officials, Guo Xing and Liu Zhikui, said the current cards were too easy to forge and did not take advantage of technological advances. They also said the new cards, which will feature a rendering of the Great Wall, would not look much different from the old ones. "The ID card and the ID number are mainly going to be used to verify a resident's identity, safeguard people's rights, make it easier for people to organise activities and maintain law and order," Mr Guo said.
The use of electronic cards is not particularly new. Other governments and companies issue them. Hong Kong began issuing its own electronic ID cards in June. With the Olympic Games approaching in 2008, China expects a growing demand for various cards, including transit cards, bank cards and social security cards, said Jafizwaty Haji Ishahak, an analyst in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, with Frost & Sullivan, a consulting company. The social services cards that are to be phased in should be able to track all the government services an individual receives, from health care to welfare. "If you want to live in the fast lane you have to deal with technology, but you cannot have total freedom," said Frank Xu, executive director of Smart Card Forum of China, who is from Huzhou, one of the test cities. "There have to be conditions."
But detractors say freedom has a far different meaning in China, a place where security officials have never been shy about following or using listening devices on dissidents, journalists or students. While it may make sense to track would-be terrorists, the cards would also make it much easier for the government to monitor political or religious dissidents. After China's 1989 crackdown on pro-democracy demonstrators, the government televised photographs and identification card numbers of student leaders being sought. Under the new system, tracking dissidents would be much easier, said Mr Becquelin of the rights group in Hong Kong.
There are concerns that the technology could be prone to abuse, corruption or the whim of the local authorities who routinely thumb their noses at Beijing. This may be particularly true with China's surging population of rural migrants, now estimated at more than 120 million and growing by 13 million a year. "This new card will make it possible to locate people who haven't registered, so I think the migrants will be more subject to abuse," Said Dorothy J Solinger, a professor of political science at the University of California at 1rvine. So far, anyway, most Chinese who have heard about the new cards do not seem to mind; indeed, many are enthusiastic. Yes, they say, there is always the possibility of corruption. Yes, one's privacy may be invaded from time to time.
But many Chinese said they liked the idea of guarding against identity theft and ensuring that someone who claims to be, say, a nanny, is telling the truth. Besides, there is also a sense of resignation. "Our security officials already have all the information about us, anyway, so this is not a big change," said one man, surnamed Sun, who is a science professor in Beijing.
Source: The New York Times Tuesday 19 August 2003
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